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Wanjohi Karoga 28, at the Nation Centre on February 5, 2017. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

A banker with a green thumb

By James Kahongeh

Isaac Karoga is a banker with a green thumb. While growing up in Ichichi Village, Kangema in Murang’a County in the 1990s, Isaac, with his childhood friends, played and grazed their family livestock in Aberdare forest. At that time, the villagers and wildlife freely moved in and out of the park.

With time, locals began abusing their free entry into the forest. They began to fell trees and hunt, leading to the cordoning off of the national park. This, however, did not stop people from stealing their way into the forest to harvest tress. By the time Isaac joined college in 2008, this thoughtless logging had spiralled into homesteads.

“During vacations, which I spent at home, I would be struck by the level of indiscriminate felling of trees being carried out in our village. My neighbours cut even fruit trees to sell for quick money. Our location was becoming bare at an alarming rate. Unlike before, you could now see miles of exposed land.”

It is was at this point that Isaac and two friends decided to intervene. The start was slow, and frustrating. “We began by talking to our peers. We thought it would be easier to convert the youth, instead, they laughed our efforts off, saying that nothing could be done to rescue the situation that was fast spilling out of hand.”

For months, Isaac and his team crisscrossed their sub-county, trying to convince people why it was important to stop reckless exploitation of the Aberdare forest, but their efforts were sneered, at, and they were accused of seeking cheap publicity.

CONCERTED EFFORTS

“There’s a misinformed perception among most Kenyans that whenever someone is strongly advocating for a cause like this, they have their eyes on an elective seat. Due to this misconception, we were not making any headway, and in some case, faced hostility.”

They did not give up though.

“When people saw how determined we were with our cause, they started to pay attention, and one by one, they registered with our organisation. From just the three of us, we now had tens of people on board.”

Thus, Lieuten Green Movement, a community-based organisation, came into being, with the aim of conserving and protecting the Aberdare forest ecosystem.

“We considered ourselves soldiers of the environment. Lieuten is the short form of the word lieutenant.”

In addition to their public forums, the group has a website, www.lieutengreen.org, through which they create awareness and mobilise support from interested quarters.

“While it has been difficult to achieve zero logging in the Aberdare in spite of the efforts of many other entities, including the government, it is declining. Forest rangers have also intensified patrols around the forest. It is a fairly successful story.”

It is interesting how a bank officer who spends most of his day working at his desk, and with evening classes to attend, finds spare time to dedicate to such a cause.

“Week days are dedicated to my job and school, while weekends are dedicated to this project.”

According to Isaac, the locals’ mind-set is changing. “The youth have particularly been very receptive. Today, our people understand that there are more benefits from trees than the firewood and timber they get from them.”

The movement works closely with Aberdare Community Forest Association and Kenya Forest Service (KFS). “KFS provides tree seedlings and other facilities such as transport and personnel whenever we have a tree planting drive. They also advise us on the suitable tree species for our locality.”

Isaac says that environmental conservation is not a one-man show, and that people must therefore concert their energies to achieve any meaningful success.

CONSTANT ENGAGEMENT

“Our funding majorly comes from our partners, Insight Management Consultants Limited and Capricorn Group. There are also individual well-wishers who support our cause. Groups from the surrounding villages also participate in large numbers.”

Besides tree planting, the group also has mentorship programmes among pupils and students in schools in Murang’a County. “Through these awareness programmes, we are able to raise a generation that is mindful of the environment. When we groom them, future campaigns to conserve the environment will enjoy more support from the society.”

The programme has not been without setbacks. “People often complain that their small parcels of land cannot accommodate food crops and trees as well. Others insist on planting fast-maturing species of trees such as eucalyptus, which induces soil degradation – this is a continuous initiative.”

In October 2016, the members were hosted by Murang’a County Governor, Mwangi wa Iria. According to Isaac, county authorities wanted to create an environmental conservation model similar to that of Lieuten Green Movement.

“They promised to constantly engage us, but one year down the line, there has only been silence.”

This, however, has not clouded Isaac and his friends’ commitment for a green Kangema and Aberdare area.

Every driven person has someone they look up to for inspiration. For this determined young man, Isaac Kalua, the chairperson of the Kenya Water Towers Agency, inspires him due to his devotion to the preservation of water towers and the environment in the country.

The group plans to plant 10,000 units of trees in Aberdare Forest on the first day of April in a campaign dubbed, ‘Plant One Cut None’.

“Irregular rainfall patterns trigger an acute decline in water levels in Sasumwa and Ndakaini dams, and tree felling is chiefly to blame.”

The concern and efforts of Isaac and his partners, Peter Karanja and Martin Maina, have played a significant role in rescuing Kangema Sub-County from the brink of rugged bareness and transformed the area into a beautiful green country of blooming trees.

Their aim is to extend this campaign to all the counties bordering Aberdare forest.

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